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MAJURO, Marshall Islands (August 20, 1997 - Marshall Islands Journal)---Rongelap leaders are proposing to launch construction and rehabilitation work at their uninhabited home atoll aimed at setting the stage for full-scale nuclear cleanup work on the distant northern atoll.

Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi said that details still must be decided by the Rongelap Council, but that consideration is being given to building a dock, field station and improving the airport -- all facilities needed to support a cleanup effort.

Rongelap has been uninhabited since 1985 when the islanders evacuated their atoll fearing continued radiation exposure from the environment. In 1954, Rongelap was engulfed by a cloud of radioactive fallout from the Bravo test, exposing the inhabitants to a dose of about 175 rads of radiation.

Rongelap officials are discussing with Department of Interior officials the possibility of freeing $8 million that could be used to jump start cleanup and rehabilitation work, Matayoshi indicated. Last year, the U.S. Congress increased Rongelap's resettlement trust fund to $32 million, with an additional $8 million provided to Interior that is supposed to be used in the form of grants to match funds expended by Rongelap from the $32 million fund.

"We know that the money (in the resettlement trust fund) isn't enough to cleanup Rongelap, which is why we are exploring other options," Matayoshi said. But, despite a funding shortage -- a preliminary estimate produced several years ago pegged rehabilitation costs at more than $80 million -- "we are making a good faith effort to start the rehabilitation process with what we've got," he said.

The inability of the $32 million fund to accomplish the resettlement objective is the primary reason why Rongelap leaders are negotiating with Interior officials to make the $8 million available for cleanup infrastructure activities without the requirement that it be matched by money from the trust fund.

Matayoshi said that they want to get construction work started for the resettlement facilities by early 1998.

"We want to get things going (on Rongelap)," Matayoshi said. "The message we want Washington to hear is that we are serious and working cooperatively (to start the resettlement process)."

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail: Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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